Engaged at 15: How Early Marriage Holds Girls Back in Palestine

By Nada Dajani, Senior Communications Specialist, ANERA

When I was only 13 years old, my classmate was married off to an acquaintance of her father’s. At least, those were the rumors that were circulating around school. Later we were traumatized to learn that the arranged marriage was indeed true.

A Palestinian girl acts as a bride in a performance in Gaza. (Photo: palomaleca)

This story did not take place in some remote area in the West Bank. It happened in a school in the heart of Jerusalem.

As middle schoolers, we were preoccupied with school and friends, and were slowly beginning to develop our unique identities and self-awareness. We were innocent, naive and ignorant on many issues — although we liked to believe otherwise. While the rest of us were practicing our natural right to be teenagers and figuring out the world around us, Sara was drowning in a dead-end future.

It wasn’t her fault. She had been sheltered by a conservative society where even talking about sex was taboo. Then all of a sudden she was ripped away and driven into an unknown world she was not ready for.

Now I am 32 years old, a wife and mother myself. Sometimes Sara crosses my mind. She could be any of the younger women I pass in the street. Maybe she has spotted me before and walked past me, like a ghost from another lifetime.

Early marriage still goes on today

Almost two decades later, early marriage is still an issue for Palestinian girls. Fifteen percent are married by the age of 18 in Palestine, according to UNICEF and Girls Not Brides. WAFA reports that the West Bank’s civil code status act legalized marriage for girls over 15 and boys over 16.

When girls marry early, they are more likely to drop out of school and miss out on completing even a basic level of education. Coincidentally, places where early marriage is more prevalent have higher rates of illiteracy, especially among women.

I have had first-hand experience of this through my work with a non-profit organization, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA). Through our various health, educational and development programs in Palestine, I’ve met the girls and women who are still dealing with this custom. I’ve met fragile women and others so powerful they crack jokes in the midst of their misery. Mothers of nine and ten children, turned into grandmothers at 30, who have lost count of the number of their grandchildren. Women who look older than their actual ages, who have been burdened beyond words.

Sawsan shares a #womensday message. (Photo: ANERA)

Dropping out of school

In Hitta we learned that many girls marry as early as 15 years of age. Some get “engaged” after only completing the sixth grade and get married off within a couple of years. The principal of the only school in Hitta partially attributed the phenomenon to the lack of local facilities for higher education.

“When finishing sixth grade, the girls were expected to complete their middle and high school education in the neighboring village of Nuba,” says the principal. “But since there is no means of transportation between the two villages, they have to go on foot.” In this poor village, parents can’t afford to send their girls to the other village on a daily basis. And for some, walking there is out of the question due to the conservative views of their families.

What happens to these girls? They become victims of their unfortunate circumstance. They become drop-outs, forced to squander their precious years at home, deprived of an education. That’s about the time when the parents would consider marrying them off as a better option.

Not smart enough

Bil’in is a village just west of Ramallah. Many girls there are married between the ages of 16 and 18. Many girls also drop out out of high school without being married or engaged.

Why would a girl drop out after 11th grade to get married when only one more year separates her from graduating school? I realize that some girls are prevented from continuing their education by their husbands or their families, but what about the rest?

According to the principal, they don’t think they are smart enough to pass the national secondary examinations. They would rather withdraw than go through the stress of 12th grade to most likely fail.

Another sad reality is that there are hardly enough jobs available for university graduates, let alone high school graduates. These girls are usually faced with two choices: to graduate from school and most probably end up jobless or to get married and become housewives.

Two cases at Bil’in moved me personally. One was a girl who got married right after completing ninth grade. The school administration pushed hard to keep her in school, and it was due to their efforts that she continued to the tenth grade. Unfortunately, she got pregnant and dropped out the same year when she couldn’t handle the pressure. That was only a year ago.

A more hopeful case was a girl who got married during summer break between 11th and 12th grades. In spite of her marriage and consequent pregnancy, she managed to remain one of the best students of her class. At the graduation ceremony she wore her ceremonial gown with a precious baby girl on her lap. She continued to university and has recently completed her studies.

What are they thinking?

I can’t help but wonder what these high school kids really feel about marriage. It’s a society that glorifies marriage and puts into the heads of little girls that it’s the ultimate goal of any woman.

Tamam teaches at the Rawdat El Zuhur girls’ school in Jerusalem. (Photo: ANERA)

And as a result, it’s common for young girls to grow up thinking that they should mainly aspire to become wives and mothers. They might think that marriage is a festive party, a white dress and a bride lavished with attention. You find girls who are as young as 14, eager to get married, or can hardly wait to boast their engagements to their classmates.

Peer pressure is also a factor that pushes girls to get married early. When girls start seeing their friends getting engaged and married, they may start to feel left out, especially during those insecure teenage years. They may feel like they are being left behind in childhood, and want to marry to “grow up.”

In a society that favors youth, many girls also feel like it could be their last chance to get married. There’s a fear of becoming a spinster if one doesn’t get married when she’s young. Many believe that it’s harder for older women to find a husband than younger ones.

Why does this happen?

In the traditional, conservative culture of some Palestinian communities, dating and mixing with the other sex is taboo. It goes along with the pervasive fear of a “tarnished reputation,” which many believe is the result of even merely being seen coupled with someone of the opposite sex. This is why families try to marry off their daughters as soon as they can — so they don’t have the chance to shame them by tarnishing their reputation.

This cycle can only be broken by sex education and awareness.

Families might also prefer a younger bride because of the perception that she can be more easily controlled by the husband and his family. Wives are expected to do chores for the immediate family of their husband and produce grandchildren. So when a 15-year-old is married, she’s not mature enough and is still molding her character and personal perspective, and families find that convenient.

The parents of the girl find this convenient too, as it means one less mouth to feed, and so many families are struggling with poverty.

Remembering Sara

Going back to my friend Sara, her oldest children must be teenagers by now. I can only hope their reality and future are brighter than their mother’s. If I ever see Sara again, I would hug her and I would most probably cry. I hope she knows that she had been wronged. I hope she would cry too, for the sake of her own daughters.

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